The making of a T-shirt mogul and leader of Mets fans

Lizy Sayoran and Darren Meenan at work. (Jefferson Mok)
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Evan Burgos

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Darren Meenan’s obsession with the Mets began with a security guard at the Shea Stadium press entrance: his grandfather, Bill.

Sometimes his grandfather would walk Meenan and his mother up the ramp from the press entrance to the seats behind home plate. The seats were on the house. When his mother wasn’t around to escort him (his father worked long hours as the general manager of a printing company) Meenan would solicit parents of friends to chaperone.

Meenan’s other grandfather, John Trypuc, was an AT&T phone technician stationed in Corona. Shea happened to be on his route; he had the privilege of maintaining the bullpen-to-dugout phone lines. By no coincidence, he often found himself in the dugout before games, mingling with the players, conveniently with a ball handy for signatures, for his grandson.

Mets games are part of Meenan’s routine, now more than ever—he’s been going to something like 70 a year since 2005, he estimates.

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Back at Shea, he would sit in Section 16, in the blue Loge seats, along the first base line. The usher, a German man, would let him sit wherever he pleased, just slip him a $10 bill.

“Everybody had a guy like that,” Meenan said.

Such relationships don’t exist so much at the new ballpark, Citi Field, which opened in 2009. Ushers no longer man the same section for each game, according to Meenan, instead rotating throughout the stadium. Fan-usher relationships are thus harder to develop, but Meenan still has plenty of friends, and says he still finds ways to procure the seat he desires.

But now he has eyes for an entire section.

MEENAN, A 32-YEAR-OLD FROM DOUGLASTON, didn't plan to make a living from being a Mets fan. But once he got started, there was a demand for more, and he responded.

The first t-shirt he made read, simply, “I SURVIVED,” in that familiar blue and orange. It was about the recent failures, like the stunning collapse of 2007, heartache in ’08 and the injury-plagued season after that.

“I was just messing around,” Meenan said. “Probably watching a game. Just came up with some graphic.”

That was Aug. 25, 2009. Meenan took to his parents’ basement and with some cotton shirts, a silk screen and some ink. Three years later, it had become a clothing line, its name a reference to the subway rail that ends at the stadium in Flushing: The 7 Line. A fan designing shirts for the fans.

Now, Meenan has fans of his own. A faction of the Mets faithful that considers his brand—steadily evolving into his life’s work—the heartbeat of the fan base.

“Even when the first shirt came out, it wasn’t my intention to try and change the culture of the Mets fan base,” he said. “It wasn’t the idea. But as it grew, you’re just given certain responsibilities. People look to you for certain things.”

Like the shirts that commemorated Mets pitcher Johan Santana’s no-hitter, and R.A. Dickey’s Cy Young. No-brainers, really, for a guy who makes topical Mets shirts for a living. Customers inquired and Meenan obliged. His credo—for the fans, by the fans—isn’t novel, but it is genuine.

Fans identified with the proposition: Buy a shirt, a hat, or a scarf and support a small business, one that hand-makes its goods, works out of a corner of a warehouse in Jamaica, Queens, and sells exclusively online. Wear that shirt to a game, and people notice.

At each successive home game there were more of those shirts sprinkled throughout around the stadium, and, especially, in the bleachers. One day, Meenan figured, they should all sit together.

It first occurred at the final home game of the 2012 season. Five hundred and sixty fans gathered that day in the same center field section, wearing Darren’s shirts. The 7 Line Army, he calls it. The Mets were dreadful in the season’s second half, except for the magic of Dickey’s floating knuckler, but Meenan wanted people watching to know: some of us still care.

“We’re alive,” said Lizy Saroyan, a longtime friend and Meenan’s lone full-time employee. “What we do is really fun. And I’ve said this since day one, our fans are awesome and they’re awesome because they understand where we’re coming from and what we’re trying to achieve.”

The next day, a newspaper headline read: “CITI DOESN’T SLEEP”. Pictured was Meenan’s army, his mother front and center. A fan frenzy at the ballpark as the home team played out its fourth consecutive losing season.

ON MOST DAYS, MEENAN CAN BE FOUND IN THE WAREHOUSE in Jamaica, where he rents a small sliver of a sprawling building, standing watch as a screening press reels off shirts. Some days he does them by hand. Boxes and bins filled with merchandise sit on the floor and on four ceiling-high metal shelves, which abut two long worktables where orders are reviewed, shirts are packaged for shipping and a docked iPod plays music. A Mets flag hangs overhead. Fan mail is taped to the shelves. So are pictures of scantly dressed models, who posed for a The 7 Line calendar.

Meenan, who stands at about 6-foot-2, dresses like a skater—jeans, a hat and a different The 7 Line shirt for every day of the week. He has five tattoos, but counts the ink sleeve that covers the entirety of his right arm as one. The designs include Shea Stadium, Mr. Met and a 7 train. At work, he is in constant discussion with Sayoran, who handles all of the orders and shipping.

After a little less than four years in business, The 7 Line’s success is easily measurable. As of one recent count, Meenan had 77 items available for purchase on his web site, including t-shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, and knitted hats and scarves crocheted by his mother, with a tag that reads “Made By Momma Meenan.” Shirts generally go for $20. The 7 Line makes all of its sales through a PayPal portal on Meenan’s blog, the domain name for which he paid $10. This past year, according to Meenan, The 7 Line revenue was in excess of $500,000.

MEENAN USED TO RACE BIKES.

He was 13 years old when his parents, Carolyn and Peter, gave him his first motorcycle: a 1990 Kawasaki KX 80, with a lime green paint job and blue seat. Peter bought it used and refurbished it himself. Not every teenager is entrusted with a motorcycle by his parents, but Darren always had a proclivity for two-wheeled contraptions, back to the days, his father says, when he would ride circles around other kids on the block, who at seven or eight years old were still using training wheels. It didn’t take long for Darren to take his bike to the races. He played baseball, and was a strong swimmer, but racing bikes was his sport of choice. And if taking their son to ball games was the way Darren and his mother bonded, then weekend road trips to motocross competitions was Peter’s special thing with his son.

“Whatever he was into,” Peter Meenan, now 67, says, “I made sure I was into it, that I was in there.”

By the time Darren reached high school, he had outgrown the Kawasaki and adopted a new form of bike riding. He never did any one thing for too long anyway. BMX was the cheaper, more practical way to go.

Father and son traveled all over the country. Kentucky, Texas, Indiana, Florida, Massachusetts, even ventured to Canada once. Peter drove and Darren competed in the novice skill group, rising to be the fourth-ranked 16-year-old in the nation at one juncture, he says. He garnered a sponsorship from a local team, called ZTec. He practiced on Tuesday and Sunday evenings, out in Shoreham, Long Island, off Exit 68 of the Long Island Expressway, about an hour and a quarter from home.

Today, 15 plaques line the wall of the den on the first floor of his childhood home, a charming two-story house with a white façade and black window trim on a quiet street in Douglaston, where the local country club helped tennis legend John McEnroe in his formative years and, Peter Meenan says, the taxes aren’t as high as they are in the neighboring towns.

What Darren liked most about the bike circuit was the friends he made, with whom he would venture into local parks and woods and build their own jumps and race trails. In time, the racing itself became a bore: too much idling between races, waiting for his turn, not being able to do what he pleased with his time. As his parents tell it, he was the sort of child who could hardly sit still.

He hated homework to the point that his mother would have to chase him around the house just to sit him down, to the point that he once threatened to run away to his aunt and uncle’s, citing how strict his household was when it came to his studies. (For the record, his sister Alice was a model student. She now lives in Connecticut and is a fund-raising manager for a nonprofit.) When it came time to pick a high school, Darren insisted his parents send him to Saint Mary’s, out in Manhasset, over two other Catholic schools they were considering because, according to Darren, the curriculum was less rigorous.

During his senior year, though, one class finally got through to him.

“Changed my life,” he says.

It was a small art class taught by an open-minded teacher named Cheryl Prochilo. Her dozen or so students could explore whatever medium they desired and she would facilitate the work. No marching orders, no homework, just art.

Some wanted to draw and some wanted to paint. Others were interested in photography, and others felt like drumming up designs using Photoshop on the new Apple computers in the classroom. Some took to silk screening, which Prochilo says was not part of the art curriculum when she arrived at the school. Perhaps this approach explains why Meenan, years later, did not recall that it was actually a formal class. He swore it wasn’t for a grade, but rather some sort of extra-curricular dalliance. In his mind this was not school, but something else altogether. “There are kids who don’t succeed in other classes and another teacher will mention a child’s name and …” Prochilo paused, “not say something that’s too endearing about him. And I’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, he’s my favorite student.’ Because that’s his thing. Maybe he thinks more abstractly, or is a visual learner, and can do that and can’t perform in a science class.”

So Meenan gravitated to silk screening, an art form that Prochilo describes as “a magical process”—something about the way you can conceive a design and multiply it with the stroke of a rubber squeegee. Meenan inquired about using multiple colors and layering his designs. He put art to shirt for the first time. He worked after school, and Prochilo allowed him to take screens and ink home to continue there. After all the resisting, it was now Meenan who assigned himself some homework.

“This passion thing kicks in, and now it wasn’t just one, but he wanted to do a million things with it,” Prochilo said.

It was around this time that Meenan had given up racing in BMX competitions, but some of his closest friends continued to ride and he remained socially involved on the circuit.

“That’s when I started printing bike shirts,” he said.

Meenan bought his first printing kit on eBay for $400. It was basic, but all he needed to run his brand: a BMX t-shirt line called Manmade. He would travel to competitions, set up shop and sell shirts. He sponsored riders he knew and outfitted them to gain exposure. If someone wearing his gear advanced to the finals of a competition, he covered their entrance fee.

He worked by hand out of his parent’s basement, where to this day the white utility sink remains stained red from ink washed from screens. Chemical fumes filled the house then, which bothered his father. But his mother embraced it, and when his father declared that there would no more printing in the house, she overruled the ban.

After high school, Meenan spent less than a semester at Farmingdale State College before transferring to Nassau Community College. He continued with Manmade, which found its way into a couple mail order catalogues. He made enough money “not to have a serious job,” he said.

By 2006, the brand fizzled out. There was no formal end for Manmade, but Meenan’s computer crashed, its toasted hard drive taking with it all of his designs and records.

“I was so unmotivated to continue the BMX brand,” Meenan said. “I stopped riding, I started bartending, my friends all got older and quit riding. That brand ran its course.”

ONE SUMMER, MEENAN GOT A JOB AS A BOAT DRIVER AND SECURITY guard at the Douglaston Manor country club. He willingly took the night shift overseeing the boats, which required 24-hour surveillance. He would arrive at the dock around 10 p.m. and his friends would show soon after with beer and bait. They would drink, cast their rods into Little Neck Bay and laugh. Meenan was officially on the clock until 6 a.m., but he always left early. He made $15 an hour, but probably would have hung out for free, as long as his friends were with him.

“I always had jobs that made just enough to do what I wanted to do and not have to wear a suit or go to work,” he said. “That was my goal always, to do enough to have fun and get by.”

He was sitting in a booth in a pastry shop in Bayside as he said this, drinking coffee and picking at an apple crumb muffin. His royal blue Harley Davidson was parked outside and Lizy Sayoran sat to his right. I wasn’t yet noon, but she was having a slice of strawberry cheesecake.

“Maaan,” Sayoran said. “I want to be young again.” She is 29.

After coffee, Meenan planned to head to Citi Field to talk with a Mets representative about group tickets. (Meenan has big plans for The 7 Line Army this season.) Then, he was going to head up to Hunter Mountain for a weekend of snowboarding with his girlfriend. Sayoran planned to drive up and join them on Saturday. Her family has a cabin nearby.

“This isn’t life,” Meenan said. “This is fucking awesome.”

ON ITS FACE, THE 7 LINE IS ABOUT CLOTHES, BUT MEENAN’S greatest asset has turned out to be his ability to bring fans together. It turns out that it makes for good business, too. In 2012, the Mets, despite playing the largest media market in the nation, were 17th in home attendance, with an average crowd of 27,689 fans per game, according to Baseball-Reference.com. By comparison, the New York Yankees were second in attendance, and the division-rival Philadelphia Phillies, in the country’s fifth-largest market, led all of Major League Baseball. Both teams averaged more than 40,000 games per game. The Mets, degraded on the field by their owners’ financial problems, have not been in the top 10 in attendance since 2009, when the franchise averaged 39,118 fans per game, seventh best in baseball.

It is not easy being a Mets fan these days, as described by Times columnist Michael Powell September in an article headlined “Turn Out the Lights on the Mets.” It was a portrait of a disillusioned fan base and a half-empty stadium on game days.

Meenan, an eternal optimist when it comes to his team, is trying to change that fan culture with his army. He dreams that it can become unlike anything in baseball.

“We’ll do it once a month and then next year we’ll do it twice a month,” he said, earnestly. “And eventually, when the team’s in the playoffs, we’ll do it every game, whether all 860 fans show up to every game, at least half will. That’s infectious. The whole stadium will start getting into it and you won’t have people sitting on their hands during a full count with a man on third.”

After that attention-getting debut at the last game of last season, Meenan is planning many more group outings this season. He’s added 300 seats, which would make 860 ruckus-making fanatics sitting together across three outfield sections.

Last winter, Meenan posted group tickets for Opening Day on his site. Ninety-five dollars got you a ticket to the game, a special edition t-shirt, and a couple other souvenirs. The allotted 860 tickets sold out in 23 hours. Some weeks later, Meenan posted tickets for another outing, this time for a random Saturday game in late April. The price was $45. The day he posted the sale, he and Sayoran sat at their worktable in the warehouse, watching with amazement as 860 tickets sold in little more than four hours.

“We were like, holy crap,” Sayoran said. “That was intense.”

For Memorial Day weekend, he’ll bring another 860 loyalists to the park for the Mets’ showdown with the Yankees. That same week, he’ll take nearly 400 Mets fans to Yankee Stadium for a “Bronx Invasion.” Another road trip was just recently completed. Five hundred fans, who purchased tickets at $63 each, turned out for a May 18 expedition to Wrigley Field in Chicago.

“Everyone wants to go to Wrigley,” he said. “Wouldn’t you want to do it with another hundred Mets fans? That’d be more fun.”

Meenan frames it as a big fun-seeking exercise, but the marketing of it is all very deliberate. Meenan limits the number of games he offers in order to maintain demand. He only targets games he knows will be popular and looks for ones—like the Wrigley game and Subway Series match-up with the Yankees—that will be nationally televised. He’s angling not just for buy-in, but for broad exposure.

(The Mets press office did not respond to a request for the organization’s view of what Meenan is doing.)

Meenan gets stacks of fan mail expressing thanks for the shirts, the group games and the sense of community. Fans have even sent pictures of their The 7 Line tattoos. In one instance, Meenan received a letter from a fan who thanked him for helping him find love.

Boy from Virginia and girl from Florida, both distant Mets diehards, get wind of The 7 Line, buy some shirts, follow the company on Twitter and engage in online conversations with fellow fans via hashtag. One day, boy, home in Chesapeake, Va., notices girl and intimates that he finds her attractive through a tweet. Girl, sitting the passenger seat of her friend’s car on a road trip to Tallahassee, bored and checking her phone, responds warmly. What ensues is an evolution of communications, from Twitter to Facebook to Skype to in person in September 2012.

On Opening Day of 2013, the couple—Kylee Pascarella, 23, of Palm Beach Gardens and Michael Cotterell, 25, from Chesapeake—was in the stands amid Meenan’s army. It was Pascarella’s first trip to Citi Field.

“Being around the people that brought her and I together makes it that much more special,” Cotterell told me.

THE WAREHOUSE WAS COLD AND IT WAS RAINING OUTSIDE.

Meenan and Sayoran were headed out for lunch, but there’d been a delay—an issue with a shade of brown ink used to illustrate a baseball bat on a grey t-shirt. A warehouse employee conducted trial runs on scrap fabric, three times. Meenan called over the warehouse owner, a bespectacled man wearing a yarmulke, for his input. Sayoran, appearing slightly restless, went outside to her car and came back, before sitting down at her workstation and finishing inventory on the day’s orders. In the background, 400 of another shirt were coming off the press. They were soft, blue cotton shirts with the number 31 circled in white, bordered with orange, with blue pinstripes; a representation of what it will look like when the Mets retire Mike Piazza’s number.

After about a half hour, Meenan seemed happy with the brown. He and Sayoran hopped in his car and drove a few blocks to a Burger King on 179th street in Jamaica. Meenan ordered a few chicken wraps, Sayoran a chicken sandwich and fries. They found a seat at a booth near the back of the restaurant and discussed upcoming group outings. Sometimes, when he gets talking, veins in Meenan’s neck begin to pop. He became particularly animated when speaking of the trip to Wrigley, the popularity of which has him thinking that it would be an easy thing to organize outings all over the country. Perhaps he wouldn’t even go, but just facilitate the outings by purchasing the tickets and selling them on his site.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he revealed another part of his plan.

“I want to open a bar,” he said.

Right across the street from Citi Field, he said, in the area adjacent to the stadium inWillets Point, commonly known as the Iron Triangle. The City Planning Commission recently gave initial certification for zoning changes over a 23-acre plot now populated by ramshackle businesses and junkyards. Developers are proposing to replace them with a $3 billion redevelopment project for the area around the Mets’ home field. Meenan hopes it will include a location for The 7 Line Bar, a place he envisions including a beer garden, with live music and a t-shirt shop in the front. He’d hire his friends to run it. Customers would tailgate outside.

“If we can get 900 people to go to a baseball game,” he said, “how many people do you think we can get to come to a bar?”

Meenan insisted he isn’t getting ahead of himself, but he was clearly excited about the prospect. He leans in when he speaks and sentences run together. In his mind, it seemed the bar is already built. He said that maybe when it’s open he’ll go to every game. Maybe he’ll sit behind home plate with his mom, or in center field with a few hundred of his friends. Either way, he’ll feel at home.

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